Bongo; Lebowitz Update

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I strolled through the West Chelsea gallery district, on my way to Bongo, with no intention of actually seeing art. But I did. It was billboard art. Maybe the same people who did those former porn marquees in transitional Times Square made this one. It's posted on that remnant of an elevated train track you see when looking Hudson-ward from 10th Ave. in the W. 20s. Most of the blocks have ads on the overpass for blockbuster movies that have already closed, but this arty one is a real sign of the times. All it says is, "Don't Hate What You Prefer."

My reflexive first response was "whatever." I was going to eat oysters, though I prefer sushi, but I like oysters just fine. What does hate have to do with preference? I figured the sign, being a public installation disguised as advertising, had something to do with art and consumer capitalism. Could the signmaker have been needling artists? Surely they prefer a competitive art market to a state monopoly or an aristocratic patronage system, yet no one despises capitalism as fervently as your creative, sensitive types. They're just not considering the likely alternatives to current order. The way your average New Yorker felt about strong local leadership before 9/11 could be another example. During the aftermath, the man-on-the-street view of Giuliani involved simultaneously hating and preferring him. The billboard gives sound advice?such a position is not tenable. The more I thought about the slogan, the more I liked it.

Then I saw another sign I liked: "Punjabi Food Junction." That's such a good name for a taxi-stand curry-buffet cafeteria, it's staggering. Taxi stands are food junctions. They're crossroads where drivers meet to dine. The Punjab is a junction of the subcontinent, where the flavors of India and Pakistan run together across fertile plains. (Please God don't let it or Kashmir be nuked.)

It turns out Bongo is next door to Punjabi Food Junction, but, being a cool place, it doesn't have much of a sign. I read the rave review of its furniture from an old issue of Paper posted in the window. The place had magazine decor. Unlike Punjabi Food Junction, Bongo is a gallery-district place, and unlike my billboardmaker, most of the people who habituate those environs are not writers. Visual artists' sense of fashion and designed exclusivity tends to strike me as the most offensive of all bulwarks against group insecurity. Maybe that's just because I don't have much of an eye.

Instead of entering Bongo, I checked out the chafing dishes over at P.F.J. The offerings looked above standard. Back at Bongo's window gallery of laminated review clippings from its first year, 1999, I learned that Eric Asimov loved the 'sters. He and everyone else mentioned Eames chairs as if they recognized them without help from a press release. I went in and sat on a barstool instead.

It was early, so Bongo was almost empty. I have no idea if it remained a fashionable place, though it's very easy to imagine filled with regulars after hours?lolling on the sleek, space-age couches and Eames chairs, drinking mixed cocktails from the same bright retro palette. When my date arrived we relocated to an azure sofa in front of a kidney-shaped coffee table. Comfortable enough. We noted signed paintings on the walls. The server/bartender/shucker was playing Saturday Night Fever, which was fine, and she was nice, which was a relief. I realized I enjoy scenester places without the scenes, which caused the whole hate/prefer thing to gnaw at me a bit.

We started with a dozen assorted oysters and a bottle of Saint Laurent muscadet, which Bongo's handbook-like menu recommends highly. I agree that the young white (Bongo had recently updated its stock from vintage '99 to '00) goes great with brine. And Saint-Laurent's proved the liveliest muscadet I've ever had. I grant the restaurant style points for noting, also on the menu, that beer is just about as perfect a complement. It's the prudent choice at Bongo, because the markup on the muscadet ($28 for a bottle that retails for $8.99) is beyond the 300-percent-of-wholesale norm. The menu's friendly suggestion that the muscadet is the best thing to drink with oysters (or was it the Eames chairs?) eclipsed my sense of thrift, so the place gets Jedi Mind Trick points as well.

Any working artist will tell you that customers pay for more than raw materials. So it's fitting that Bongo's main attractions are literally raw. A rotating stock of about 20 different kinds of oysters makes the place, I'm sure, exciting for regulars. There are detailed descriptions of all the types on the menu, as well as a sampler dozen ($24-$30) for tasting all the species on hand. The menu said there'd be six, but it seems during the week the magic number is four. On the evening of our visit there were two Atlantic kinds?Malpeques and Wallace Bays, and two Pacific?Kumamotos and Pearl Points.

Malpeques went first because they're most familiar, hence easiest to judge. The following was our judgment: "Yes!" Their Canadian neighbors from Wallace Bay were similar but more mellow and a little softer. The Malpeques needed no accompaniment?lemon only intruded upon their oceanic balance. No wonder a tradition of mollusk chauvinism grew up around these sea-borne orbs from Prince Edward Isle. At peak freshness, they provide a vicarious flash of life in the underwater beds, happy as clams, only much more adept at siphoning pearly minerals out from the churning universe. It took me years to develop a taste for oysters, and in this I'm sure I'm not unusual. My taste edged a step toward oystermania with Bongo's Malpeques, which felt as delicious as they tasted.

I wonder if it makes sense to compare oysters to jazz. Both were everyday, urban pleasures for the everyman that, because of scarcity, came to instead occupy a completely different space in American culture?a rarefied connoisseur's realm, tainted by European pretension. It's a shame, but one must be honest about the likely alternatives. In any case, the West Coast oysters reminded me of West Coast swing. Which is to say: supposedly important, arousing a certain curiosity, but in the end leaving an impression that perhaps one needn't have bothered.

Kumamotos I've had before, and Bongo's were as good as the specimens I sampled from a top-tier California raw bar one time. They're tiny and precious, with flavor a tad sweet, reminiscent of clam, which isn't what I look for in an oyster. Pearl Point is another Japanese variety. The menu explains that some were planted in Netart's Bay, OR, where they're harvested via scuba. I'd judge them worth the effort. Powerfully briny, with a bullwhipping salt aftertaste, my Pearl Points made me admit I have a lot yet to learn about Pacific oysters. Mingus was from Arizona, you know.

Bongo also serves clams on the halfshell and shrimp cocktails. Then there're sandwiches of lobster salad or crabcake, soup of the day, some smoked seafood salads and a smoked platter and that's about it. Our sensuously saline dozen did enough whetting for five appetites, so the lobster roll ($17) was a must. My first of the season, it satisfied, even though I capped last autumn with Mary's Fish Camp's preeminent version. Bongo's lobster roll is chopped a little finer, and it comes with homemade slaw instead of fries, but it's comparably overflowing with choice meat, seasoned but not bulked, in a buttered toasted hotdog bun. My only caveat is that if you come to Bongo for the lobster roll, you might want to sit at the bar, because it's a little unwieldy for the coffee table scenario. We nearly lost a chunk of claw.

Smoked scallop salad ($10.50) featured mesclun greens with a honey-vinaigrette similar to what lubricated the slaw. The scallops, smoked golden brown, sat on thin slices of toasted baguette. Bongo buys from a small smokehouse in Connecticut, we were told. In true backyard New England style, its operator is not shy with the smoke. The scallops' subtle flavor was overwhelmed, but that was fine, as their consistency helped convey a rather amiable air of smolder. Our server mentioned that these smoked scallops remind her of Gouda cheese. My date had a memory-flash of ballpark hotdog. Life could be worse.

The whole salad contained only three smoked scallops, which made them feel more delicate than they really were. Such legerdemain is in some demand, and not always without good reason, I must admit. After polishing off our refreshing muscadet, I asked about desserts, and our hostess said Bongo doesn't serve any, and it's seldom that any are asked for. Huh. I pondered the possibility of an old-fashioned Hudsonside oyster bar. There's a good chance I'll live to see the harbor clean enough for the restocking of the Staten Island beds. But would anyone really build a ramshackle place with a hardwood floor, one beer tap, raw onions for bar snacks and Malpeques for coins apiece? Would anyone but 78 rpm jazz aficionados want to go if they did?

The point is that it's not about to happen. It's a long wait for a table at Mary's Fish Camp or Pearl Oyster Bar, and the oysters and service are better at Bongo than at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. When it comes to matters of atmosphere, value and nonculinary taste, Bongo and I exist on different planes. The restaurant and I have one single point of intersection: their exquisite foods. Call it a food junction. I feel as if the stylish restaurant is a nest I dropped into out of the sky, flightless, catapulted by hunger. And I was well taken care of. But my appetite isn't avian, and neither is my plumage or my priorities. Of course the shellfish is enough reason to prefer that Bongo still be there the next time I'm hurtling headlong through West Chelsea. I can't even rule out the possibility I'll be in a fabulous mood, fresh from an opening, wanting nothing more than to be seen. I sort of hope not, but I can't hate on it.

Bongo, 299 10th Ave. (betw. 27th & 28th Sts.), 947-3654.

Lebowitz Update

I went back to Cafe Lebowitz between when I wrote about it and when the piece was published, two weeks ago in this space. During the interim the restaurant got, I believe, only one other significant mention in print: a one-paragraph blurb in New York magazine. I guess owner Brian McNally, who helped invent the fashionable restaurant as we know it, anticipated this, but I was amazed to see the place suddenly packed with trendy, yipping pups. I wouldn't have been shocked if we only had to wait for a table. It was the size of the groups of people in their 20s, and the haircuts on the boys, that jarred me. I didn't know that the same type of guy who five years ago moved here and tried to escape from style-challenged dorkdom by way of a goatee, sideburns and Paper now spends four times as much on cruelly absurd salon inventions?asymmetrical bobs and Justin Timberlake mousse spikes?and New York. Is this really with whom I'm going to share space while enjoying the comfortably refined fare of Lebowitz? It's good for a laugh, but like Bartleby I would prefer not to.

Cafe Lebowitz, 14 Spring St. (Elizabeth St.), 219-2399.

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